Over the past few years there has been a noticeable increase in exposure for the music of Helmut Lachenmann. 2006 saw a major festival dedicated to the German composer's music take place in London, organised by the Royal College of Music with the London Sinfonietta, and the year before there was an extended spot given to his music at the Huddersfield festival. The RCM festival – whose ads hyperbolically compared Lachenmann to Leonardo Da Vinci and Picasso – was a great success, with the affable composer himself, now not far into his seventies, in attendance, and clearly appreciative of the enthusiastic effort put into the performances of his technically challenging music by the student players.
A defining moment in the growth in the public profile of Lachenmann's music was the successful and controversial debut in 1997 of his opera, Das Mädchen mit dem Schwefelhölzern (The Little Match Girl). Based on the tale by Hans Christian Andersen of a young street urchin who, to keep herself warm on New Year's Eve, lights the matches she is supposed to be selling, subsequently dying on the street, the opera sold out completely for its initial runs at Hamburg and Stuttgart. It is now regarded as one of the most important operas of the twentieth century, standing as a testament to Lachenmann's vision, which stretches out farther than most other composers dare to squint.
Das Mädchen is a good work for considering exactly what Lachenmann brings to the listener. Opera being an established pillar of the Western music tradition, it duly arrives attended by a cortege of acoustic regalia and generic baggage, the listener's ear defined in advance by what they already expect to hear. It is a surprise of almost violent force then that greets them with the onrush of Lachenmann's uniquely sculpted sound-world: no harmony, no melody, rhythm by and large undefined or sporadic in appearance; and in replacement a texture of silence, creaks, whooshes, dull thuds, scratches and whatever other unorthodox sounds the composer has directed the performers to make with their instruments. In this way familiar instruments are defamiliarised, made strange, in what amounts to an invention, through the work of composition, of new instruments in place of those ones given as pretext. Given that the history of music is something written on the tapestry of our ear, the sundering of that script that is instigated by Lachenmann is also fundamentally a sundering of the listener's ear.
With this provocative nature implicit (something that links him to Schoenberg) it is no wonder the reception of Lachenmann's music has been varied. And hence the controversy that attended Das Mädchen, a piece on a large enough scale to command the attention of the mainstream media. One instructive review is that of Robin Holloway in The Spectator, which outlines well the reaction many have upon first hearing this music. One thing that is undeniable is that this music is certainly not bland – you'll either find it objectionable in principle or else be lured into the world it cleaves open and airs. In a mass media space where our senses and minds are forcibly dulled by constant inundation with audio-visual junk food, we are presented with something like a rupture, something like the shock of the new: is this what music sounded like to its first listeners, to their fresh ears – and what Western art music sounded like before it was ossified into a tradition and sideshow? Each individual work by Lachenmann within its means begs the question.
With all this in mind last Tuesday evening's concert, in the Kevin Barry Room at the National Concert Hall, was one to look forward to. It was the first in a series of chamber music concerts running weekly at the NCH, entitled 'New Sound Worlds', that will be running every Tuesday into early December. The performers were well-known names: soprano Sarah Leonard and pianist Rolf Hind, two distinguished interpreters of contemporary music who are currently touring the work that was the centrepiece of the night's concert, Lachenmann's Got Lost; a work that was specifically written for them, being given its first performance by them in Munich last year.
So it was a shame the attendance was of the low number it was, empty seats unfortunately outnumbering those hosting bodies. The contentious nature of the music likely had something to do with this: there are many who simply give Lachenmann a wide berth. But whatever the reason it did not take away from the night's performance; and indeed in some way added to its enjoyment, Hind and Leonard adopting more of an informal tone than they likely otherwise would have done, interspersing their performance with reflections on the works and describing their experience of working with Lachenmann in the past.
Things got under way with some Schoenberg, the Zwei Lieder Op. 14. It’s rare enough you can say of a concert that Schoenberg was the most conservative item on the bill, but this was one such occasion. Its performance, however, was effective, drawing the audience into the night's proceedings. Following this Hind took to the keys for Lachenmann's early solo piano work, Echo Andante, from 1961-2. Although recognisably post-Darmstadt in its ethos, its subtle juxtaposition of sounds, with pure attacks alongside occasional short pedalled resonance and abruptly extreme contrasts in register, showed glimmers of the direction Lachenmann's work subsequently and decisively took.
After a solo rendition of Luigi Nono’s plangent 'Djamila Boupachà' by Leonard, the occasional roughness of the vocal delivery lending nuance to the symbolic figure drawn by Nono, Hind followed with Lachenmann's short work for solo piano, Guero. Dating from 1970, this is one of the earliest works in Lachemann's catalogue to exhibit his mature style. Hind helpfully 'forewarned' (as he put it) the audience about what was to come, holding up the score beforehand so we could catch a peek at the unorthodox array of lines given as performance directions. Not a single pitched note figured as Hind dragged his fingers along the keys like an over-sized file comb, pulled out the ivories with a click and reached inside the piano for string brushing. There was something cartoon-like to the music that made perfect sense, despite how ridiculous one’s trained reaction might find it. Perhaps the case is rather that this music allows us to see how ridiculous all music necessarily is behind our ineluctable acceptance of it.
With this we reached the centrepiece of the programme, Got Lost. Before beginning Leonard spoke warmly and informatively about the genesis of the piece, one that grew out of her work with Lachenmann on Das Mädchen (she was one of the original sopranos). Leonard requested a concert piece from the composer that she might use to continue exploring the vocal space accessed in that opera. After cataloguing for him on tape the complete repertoire of her imaginable vocal techniques, Lachenmann used it as index for the raw material of his composition.
Got Lost is in fact the first piece Lachenmann has composed for voice and piano, and is inevitably seen in the light of the Western tradition he finds himself in. But we're most definitely not in lied territory here, the work clocking in at nearly half an hour and being altogether more startling and refreshing than you'd think possible with the means at its disposal. From a dog-eared score not too far away in appearance from a used phonebook, Leonard ushered forth all manner of vocal ejaculations: clicks, hisses, pitched and unpitched buzzing, cheek-slapping, yelps, cries, singing into the piano; and she was occasionally joined in hissing antiphony by Hind at the keyboard. The piano part was equally fragmented, although we had been prepared for it by the earlier solo pieces on the programme. After a while a text eventually broke through with a skewed version of the opening lines of Nietzsche’s poem 'Der Wandrer'. This German in turn gave way, mid-sentence, to Portuguese, and a poem by Fernando Pessoa; which accordingly after a while shifted into some lines in English, the whole afterwards jumping back and forth between the three and contending with myriad punctilious noise.
When confronted with this most abstract of music there is an unmistakeable impulse to burst out laughing, something arising from the fact that over its long duration the piece effectively breaks through the dull barrier of one's wits and upturns what the mind has been inculcated by the bland sheen of everyday life to accept as familiar. On the other hand it was clear not everyone enjoyed it, one audience member towards the back continually letting out heavy sighs and blowing his nose loudly.
The performance as a whole was thoroughly convincing: you couldn’t ask for better in this repertoire than Hind and Leonard, who as well as marshalling formidable command over the individual parts maintained an adamant rapport between each other, one that was all the more evident for its subtlety. In due acknowledgement of this, and of the rapturous piece they had just witnessed – or experienced – the audience struck up an applause belying their small number.
By Liam Cagney
Photos: Helmut Lachenmann, Rolf Hind, Sarah Leonard by Allied Artists and Clarion Seven Muses respectively
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